Unstoppable

The high priest slept well that Friday night. The streets and squares of Jerusalem were quiet again. Decisive action had brought an end to the daily disruptions this Jesus had brought to the city and the temple. Now he was dead and buried. Friday night was, from the high priest’s perspective on life, peaceful. As was the Sabbath— peaceful and quiet. The Romans had taken care of the man from Nazareth, and it appeared his followers had gotten the message. The high priest was proud of himself— he had nipped the problem in the bud. He was done with Jesus, done with civil unrest and excited crowds. Things were under control. The temple would once again be a place for orderly worship. The high priest slept well, two nights in a row.

On the first day of the week reports of rumors began to trickle in, disturbing rumors. A handful of men and women, followers, no doubt, of this Jesus, were making claims that they had seen Jesus, that he was alive because God had raised him from the dead. Soon the high priest heard reports that Peter and John were in the temple just about every day, teaching and healing, and attracting large crowds. People came not just from the city but even from the surrounding towns, bringing the sick and the tormented, and the buzz was the followers of Jesus were healing them. “Hello, insomnia,” the high-priest sighed.

In the first chapters of Acts, Luke paints a portrait of the church as a movement of fearless Jesus followers whose witness brings wholeness and hope to many in the city— not to all, because what was joyful news to some, was considered subversive by others. No wonder, the high priest was nervous; institutions and the people they invest with power want stability more than anything: any kind of change must occur only on the terms and under the control of those in authority.

The followers of Jesus didn’t meet those requirements. Like their master, they acted with a different kind of authority. Soon the chief priests, elders, and scribes assembled to discuss the matter: “What will we do with them?”

They called in Peter and John, and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John in turn met with the other disciples and talked about what had happened at the council meeting. And they prayed. Lord, look at their threats, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. They prayed for courage to speak and act in the name of Jesus, and their prayers were answered.

Their boldness gave the high priest a headache, and after yet another sleepless night he took action. This Jesus thing had to stop, whatever the cost. And so he had the apostles arrested and shut up in prison. He slept a little better that night. But while he was dreaming of restoring peace and order in the city, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and the apostles walked out. Before the sun was up, the good news of Jesus was again being proclaimed in the temple and in the streets of Jerusalem.

Again the high priest had the apostles brought in and stand before the council for questioning. “We gave you strict orders, didn’t we, not to teach in this name. Why have you defied the express directive of this council to desist this preaching?” And Peter and the apostles answered with disarming simplicity, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

It was human authority that killed Jesus to silence him. It was human authority that denied his authority to teach and forgive. It was human authority that accused him and found him guilty, convicted and executed him. It was human authority that did all it could to put an end to Jesus. But God raised him up and exalted him, the apostles declared, and we are witnesses to these things. You forbid us to witness? You might as well forbid us to breathe, or tell the wind to cease to blow! This is who we are, now that Jesus is risen from the dead, and this is what we do. His life is our life, his mission our mission.

Who would have thought that one day Peter would speak like that? Who would have thought that these frightened followers would have the courage to take a stand like that? That they would look human authority in the eye and defy it with such bold grace? That they could be so fearless and free?

In today’s gospel passage from John we see a very different scene. The disciples have locked themselves in a room because they are afraid. It’s a terrified little band, huddled in a dark room with a chair braced against the door. The air isn’t moving, and nobody is saying anything. I wonder what it was like for Christians in Sri Lanka today. Did they go to church or stay home, just to stay safe? And if they chose to gather for worship, did their hearts stop every time they heard the door open and close? I wonder what it was like for Muslims in Sri Lanka this past week who fled to their mosques when Christian men, in wounded fury, attacked their homes and shops in retaliation for the bombings of churches on Easter Sunday. And our Jewish neighbors yesterday, on the last day of Passover, six months after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, facing yet another deadly assault on a congregation gathered in a house of prayer? The scene in John’s gospel  feels awfully current— people of God afraid for their lives, mortal danger lurking just outside the doors.

It’s a powerful temptation to withdraw even more behind the walls of our fear, to close windows and blinds, to lock doors, to point cameras in every corner we cannot see, and to pretend that these rooms we’re in aren’t tombs.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. She came back to us to tell us, “I have seen the Lord,”— but what are words against the cold grip of fear? John knows what it’s like for followers of Jesus in a world where the darkness of Friday is deep and unrelenting: we are a community that will have only one thing going for us— the risen Jesus himself and the power of the Holy Spirit.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Roman, one of the new disciples who were baptized on Easter, read, like the others, a statement of his belief, a statement of who God is for him, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and I have memorized one line of his, simple, beautiful, and true: “Jesus is unstoppable.”

Jesus is unstoppable. Death cannot hold him. The life he is and gives is unstoppable. He comes to us through any wall, any fear, any despair. He is unstoppable.

Three times Peter denied that he knew Jesus. And the same Peter soon after boldly declared before the council, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” He had encountered the Living Christ and his peace.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says to us as he said to the first disciples and every new generation of disciples since. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The difference between a group of frightened men and women hiding behind locked doors and the same men and women fearlessly living the Jesus life— the difference is the Holy Spirit. The difference is our relationship with the Unstoppable One, a relationship so intimate and close that his breath becomes ours as his life and mission become ours. The pull of his love is stronger than death, stronger than our fear.

Thomas was not with them that night when Jesus came, John tells us. “We have seen the Lord,” they told him, but he needed to see for himself, and more than that. Thomas refused to believe his eyes alone and demanded to touch and probe Jesus’ wounded body. And Jesus responded by inviting him to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

On Christmas we hear and celebrate that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” We are drawn to the wonder of God coming among us in human vulnerability. We are drawn to the wonder of God living and knowing life through our flesh— flesh that can be touched gently and violently, flesh that can be honored and tortured, anointed and abused.

Friday reminds us of our almost infinite capacity to inflict and suffer hurt— did we need to be reminded? No, we didn’t, but we need to be reminded that God is present in that suffering. And we need to be reminded that God’s determination to heal the wounds of our sin is unstoppable.

When Jesus came to the disciples in their tomb of fear, he showed them his hands and his side. His resurrected body still carries the wounds of his earthly life, and the Risen One is forever recognizable as the Crucified One in glory. The resurrection does not erase history and its many wounds, but redeem and glorify it. In the resurrection, the trauma of sin is no longer hidden, covered up, ignored or forgotten, but revealed and healed in peace.

So when terror and fear threaten to overwhelm us, we join our brother Thomas in looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body.[1] And we trust the Unstoppable One who breathes on us the breath of new life.


[1] My thanks to Robert Hoch for this lovely line http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2808

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